Once a month, Tiffany Le Colst teaches RentWise, an eight-hour class that educates new renters about the responsibilities of being good tenants.
“We go over scenarios that might come up and help clients decide how to best handle them. We ask, ‘Do you take the issue to the landlord? Do you deal with your neighbor directly? Or do you rectify the problem yourself?’”
For example: “Say there’s a music disturbance. We’d recommend they first approach their neighbor calmly about their concerns and try to come to an agreement. Ultimately, we want clients to build relationships with their neighbors and landlords so that they can keep their rental housing,” Le Colst says.
Her classes also teach renters their rights. “We make clients aware of what discrimination looks like, for example, and what to do if they find they are being discriminated against,” she says.
Le Colst’s role as teacher is one of her many duties as a landlord liaison for Together, a nonprofit dedicated to preventing and ending homelessness in the Omaha community. The organization was founded in 1975 to help the hundreds of Omaha tornado victims left without food and shelter. Today, it provides case management, financial assistance, employment assistance, financial education, and other resources to nearly 22,000 individuals and families struggling with housing each year.
According to the Open Door Mission, approximately 2,000 people are homeless in Omaha every night.
Le Colst’s primary objective is to help the homeless find and maintain affordable, safe housing through Together’s Horizons program. She spends much of her time conducting housing inspections on properties before her clients sign a lease. “Typically, I’m checking for proper ventilation systems in kitchens and baths, making sure smoke detectors are operational, looking for signs of pest infestations, and ensuring electrical outlets are working.”
But not all landlords want inspections done on their properties. Sometimes, she must explain to them, “I do inspections to make sure normal maintenance on the property is done and meets the health and safety regulations to make a home habitable.”
Mediation is another aspect of Le Colst’s liaison position. “A lot of times, clients have barriers to attaining housing, such as having a felony record or a prior eviction debt that needs to be paid off. We evaluate what they’ve been denied for, then deal with the issue or get an appeal process going in hopes that they’ll be approved and can move in.”
She also mediates between landlord and tenant when a problem arises, helping to find a mutually agreeable solution and avoid eviction.
Le Colst makes great effort to treat her homeless clients with dignity and respect, without judgment, and to help them find the resources they need to get on their feet.
“People are homeless for many reasons,” she says. “Some are on a fixed income. For those clients, I try to mediate the cost of housing and get them connected with other resources like SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program]. Others can’t work because of a disability, and I help them connect with SSI [Supplemental Security Income] or other forms of income to help. Still others are fully capable of working, and we work with an employment specialist to determine their interests and what they’re physically capable of doing and help them find a job. Each case is different.”
Le Colst, who was born in Omaha, grew up in Texas in a military family. She moved back in 2006, earned a real estate certificate, and started a career in property management, working with Seldin Co., Lund Co., and Habitat for Humanity of Omaha before joining Together in December 2016.
“I realized I wanted to do more in the housing industry, and I have a heart for helping people,” she says. “Working closely with landlords while being able to help homeless individuals and families find a safe place to call home is truly the most rewarding job ever!”
Le Colst says her work is often made more challenging by economic factors, such as the subprime mortgage crisis of the past decade.
Many people who lost their homes in the crisis have now become renters, Le Colst explains. “With these more stable families, landlords are comfortable with raising rents and rental standards, which is now pushing low-income families into the shelters. There just is not enough affordable housing in our community to meet the need.”
Property management companies in Omaha typically set renter income requirements at three to four times the amount of rent, Le Colst says, while the average rent increase is three percent annually. These factors create more barriers for fixed- or zero-income clients, such as those on Social Security, she adds.
Jessica Jones, program director at Together, believes Le Colst is doing great work to meet these challenges and further Together’s mission. “When I hired Tiffany as landlord liaison, the position was brand-new,” Jones says. “With her hard work and professional yet personable demeanor, Tiffany has grown her position to be much more than originally designed. She has grown Together’s landlord base, recruiting over 20 new landlords in 2017. She explains our Horizons program to landlords and breaks down stereotypes of homeless individuals. She advocates for our clients, while also keeping the landlords’ needs and rights at the forefront.”
Jones is optimistic that Le Colst’s efforts will pay off going forward. “It’s our hope that landlords will volunteer to come talk with the [RentWise] class, and will accept the class certificate from our clients in lieu of good credit or references, giving them another chance.”
Le Colst has another goal in mind: setting up a landlord mitigation fund. “The funds would provide financial assurances for landlords concerned about additional risks related to damaged property, non-payment of rent, or eviction costs,” she says. “These funds could be accessed to cover expenses that exceed a tenant’s security deposit.”
This insurance policy of sorts would likely bring more landlords on board and offer housing options for those facing the greatest housing barriers, Le Colst adds.
“It’s especially rewarding when you have someone homeless for 20-plus years walk into their own apartment for the first time…It’s a profound moment,” she says. “You realize they do want a special place they can call home. They’re no different than the rest of us.”
Visit togetheromaha.org for more information.
This article was printed in the November/December 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.